Is It Worth Investing In Lenses For Micro 4/3”?

Is it really about lenses, or is it about something more essential?

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My DVX200 on set of The Asylum spec trailer. That’s an LED topper, or an “Obie” as we like to call them here in the USA, for subtle fill light.

Tyler Kraft posted this question on one of the many filmmaker Facebook groups I’m a member of:

I recently choose to go with a Panasonic GH4 as my main camera that I plan to use for my upcoming low budget film. What do you all think of the Micro 4/3 sensor size? Is it worth investing in some lenses for it? Any suggestions for (cheap) lenses? (I have the Panasonic 14-140 and a speed booster to use a Nikon nifty fifty and Nikon 35-70mm F3.5 AI)

Here was my reply:

Micro 4/3” is similar to Super 16 and lots of modern mainstream movies are shot on S16 film: Fruitvale Station, Black Swan, Hurt Locker, Moonrise Kingdom, Leaving Las Vegas, and Clerks all come to mind. My DVX200 has a 4/3 MOS sensor (and affixed 13x zoom lens) which I shot tons of cinematic work with. I even shot a feature film using the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera (M4/3) and cine lenses intended for Super 35.

M4/3 is just a format. It provides a look as if you were choosing a film stock. It’s hard to get the background out of focus? So what? What if you want deeper focus? When I shoot 135 (approx Vistavision) I’m always stopping down to achieve deeper focus. It is incredibly hard to pull focus handheld at T2 on a “full frame” sensor LOL. I knew a DP who only liked to go T4.5/6 split in S35, but I was very thankful because I was his 1AC LOL. Anyway, M4/3 (S16) is just a format, like S35 or 135 or S8 or IMAX, etc; you choose the one that’s right for the project and its budget.

Regarding lenses: do not invest in lenses for a small format. Invest in lenses that cover syltandard formats like S35 or large formats like 135. A few years ago I invested in fast PL mount cine lenses (T2.1) that cover up to 135 format (what YouTubers call “full frame”, whatever that means). With a solid PL mount adapter I can adapt the lenses to almost any camera whose flange is shallow enough, including M4/3, E, RF and EF. The nice thing about M4/3 (and other mirrorless mounts) is the flange is so shallow you can adopt almost any sort of lens you like. So there’s no reason to get a cheap consumer Panasonic lens just because you bought a GH4. Use that speedbooster with that Nikon. Shoot a whole movie with it. Or get another Nikon lens that’s wider if you need it. The lenses usually only provide a little bit of character to your movie’s look. The lenses are not going to be what really affects how the movie looks. The lighting is.

Lighting and composition are the things that will make or break how your movie looks. The tools used on set only marginally affect the look; what they really do is affect how well you work on set. Good tools are effortless to work with. Crap tools are crap and slow you down and suck. Invest in good tools if you’re really taking this movie thing seriously…

GH4 is just okay. It’s a horrible filmmaking tool because it’s a stills camera. Stills cameras have to be rigged out a bunch to make them useable. At the end of it all it might actually be cheaper to buy a proper digital cine camera instead of a DSLR or mirrorless and rig it out to behave like a proper video camera.

But, I understand when you’re starting out, you can buy 7 GH4s for the price of an EVA1 (which is excellent), or 10 for the price of my FS7II (which I turned into a mini Alexa). But but but, start investing in good lenses now. That way you can upgrade your camera bodies as texhnology and your budget improves over time, but the lenses will outlive all of your cameras, and you…and your kids. Seriously consider saving up for proper PL-mount cinema lenses in a few years (either a set of fast primes, or an equivalent zoom). All you would need is a solid M4/3 to PL adapter for them to work on your GH4, for example. And PL cinema glass is getting cheaper and more plentiful every year. Just look at the ones by Sigma and DZO. The Arri equivalent lenses are $50-100K+.

But for right now, use the lenses you have. Invest in good lighting and I don’t mean those cheap, ugly, weak LED flatpanels.

By Jason R. Johnston

Jason is an award-winning cinematographer, and director of commercials, branding films, native content, music videos, documentaries, and narrative films. As a full-time freelancer, he can be hired to DP or direct almost any project you have in mind. He is based in Sparta, Tennessee, and ready to travel for any gig.

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